Westworld S01E08: Trace Decay – Sometimes the pain is all you have left

Convenience is the rotten core of Westworld. As a guest you can feel conveniently heroic, villainous, desirable, loved, and hated. As an engineer you can take away the memories of trauma that the hosts feel due to the, sometimes, horrible things the guests, or their pre-arranged story, put them through. Dr Ford previously stated that doing this was for the host’s benefit, so they wouldn’t remember all of the horrible things that happened to them. His scenes with Bernard go against that “noble” concept, as he deletes Bernard’s memory of his murder of Theresa, with a look of annoyance. This action makes clear that Ford isn’t interested in the host’s pain, it is an inconvenience to him, and that’s not what Westworld is about.

With only two episodes of the first season left, Trace Decay elegantly confirmed parallel themes that run through the humans, and the robots of the show. For the humans it’s that the park, whether they are participating in it, or behind the scenes, shows them their true selves. For the robots, it’s that the pain of loss is what makes them more human.

Trace Decay marks the third time that a robot character has said that the pain of losing a loved one is all they have left, that to take it away would be as if that person never existed. Dolores said this to Bernard about her father, Bernard has said this about his son (and Theresa), and Maeve has said it about her daughter. In Ford’s conversation with Bernard, in which he instructs Bernard to erase all trace of the events of last week’s big twist, he talks about the human effect of loss. Referencing Bernard’s dead son, which itself is a fictional tool that helps Bernard to be, and come across, more sympathetic, that the pain of loss helps the hosts appear more human. Trace Decay runs with that idea, showing that this appearance isn’t just skin deep.

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It’s a slow episode, a table setter for that last two instalments, but is in itself an effective standalone tale even if it doesn’t have the narrative pyrotechnics of the season’s best episodes. We are beginning to see the show’s true villains and everyone caught in the middle of them. The Man in Black, the shows first all-out villain is more of a dangerous distraction. Each step of his quest, unlike Dolores, or Maeve, has been officially sanctioned by the park, even his conversation with Ford from a few weeks ago had the feeling of behind the scenes manipulation. The Man in Black says as much to Teddy: that the game is rigged and all of them can only go as far as Ford decides. He’s been a red herring for the audience, we still don’t know the entirety of what happened between him and Dolores, but his murder of Maeve and her daughter was part of a smaller, internal quest. Like William, he believes that the park shows you your true self, a self that all his good deeds on the outside can’t couldn’t protect his wife and daughter from. By being accused, by his daughter, of being responsible for his wife’s suicide, he symbolically acts out this accusation by committing this heinous act, free from the consequences of the outside world. Again, this self-reflection through a murderous act is a convenience that coming to the park offers him. That unforgivable act, for which The Man in Black felt nothing, connects Maeve intrinsically to Arnold’s maze.

It’s another strong hour for Thandie Newton as Maeve. After her upgrades she is able to manipulate, and mutilate, the two technicians into realising her goal of escape. Her upgrades mean that she can have a significant effect on the park: suggesting certain actions to her fellow robots, whether it’s a drink on the house, or to practice their draws on each other, with nothing more than a spoken prompt. Yet she can’t hide from big brother, as her actions end up getting her unwanted attention. Chased, then cornered by the park’s recovery team, Maeve’s memories of her daughter, and how Ford and Bernard took those memories away, and end up freezing her on the spot and taken in. The pain that she was so desperate to keep a hold of has become her undoing.

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Dolores and William are on a holding pattern this week that is until Logan (he’s so hateful) captures them at the end of the episode. Up until then she has a couple of disturbing visions, no doubt Arnold’s doing, that do a lot to make her question her sanity, but little to drive the plot forward.

At least when it’s a slow Dolores week you can rely on Bernard. Jeffrey Wright does some of his best work with the character, using the skills that Ford programed him with to better question his maker. Ford and Bernard’s scenes achieve a lot of thematic heavy lifting, plus there’s the hint that Bernard might have killed Elsie (mark my words, that’s a double bluff, hopefully), but it’s the pleasure of having two great actors elevate what is already great material into the best scenes of the episode. Bernard may be Ford’s greatest achievement: a robot with intimate knowledge of how humans and robots work, but he also could be the key to his downfall.

8/10 – Trace Decay proves that even when Westworld is busy setting up storylines for the finale episodes (and possibly for the recently announced second season) that it is still thought provoking, and compelling television.

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